The Facts About HIV and Barebacking

Understanding the Causes and Motivations for Unprotected Sexual Intercourse

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Photograph © Queereaster Media Working Group

The term barebacking is commonly used among gay man as slang for unprotected anal intercourse but can also be used to refer to unprotected vaginal sex.

The term was popularized in the early- to mid-1990s and received a lot a coverage as reporters latched onto stories about so-called "bug chasers" who actively sought to get infected and "conversion parties" where HIV-negative men had unprotected sex with HIV-positive men.

While the firestorm has long since died down, the practice of barebacking continues to be a part of the sexual vernacular, fueled in large part by the availability of more effective HIV drugs and the reduced fear seen in many at-risk populations.

Why Do People Choose to Bareback?

Early research into the practice revealed that the rationale for barebacking wasn't simply "irresponsibility" or "self-destructiveness" as some in the media suggested. Rather, it reflected a plethora of complex psychological and social issues that informed, sometimes adversely, the decision-making processes of men who remain at highest risk of acquiring HIV in the U.S.

Among the key motivations for barebacking:

  • Condom fatigue, or simply the emotional exhaustion of having to use condoms all the time. This is particularly true for individuals who see them as impediments, reducing the sensitivity and spontaneity they feel they have with condomless sex.
  • Denial, fueled by the belief that you can deal with HIV later. This is a common belief among many you who often feel penalized for living in a time when condoms are a considered a must. This group often considers HIV therapy as a fall-back position, something they can turn to if and when they need to. As a result, treatment is often delayed until the disease becomes symptomatic, resulting in poorer long-term outcomes.
  • Isolation among gay men who are connected to others through sexual networks and often in a more profound way.  Where social stigmas and prejudices add to an already strong feeling of isolation, entering into what might be considered the "ultimate intimacy" can appear to lessen those feelings.
  • Trading off, or balancing the consequences of HIV versus the perceived benefits of "unrestricted" sexual contact. To these individuals, HIV is often seen as a nuisance which can be treated with a few pills; a small price to pay to be a member of such a close knit group.
  • A sense of relief among individuals who somehow feel that infection is an inevitable outcome. Guilt and shame for past (or current) behaviors often factor into these fears and, rather than address these feelings, men will actively place themselves at risk to reduced the perceived burden of worry.
  • Misinformation, sometimes attributed to AIDS denialist beliefs, conspiracy theories, or doubts about government or medical institutions. In other instances, misinformation can be generated by friends, members of a sexual network, or the internet, with individuals picking and choosing what information they choose to believe. The practice is not so much a result of obstinacy or ignorance, but rather a person's desire to bolster an underlying belief system with whatever facts support that system.
  • Self-image, wherein men might strike a distinct connection between masculinity, sexual prowess, and intentional unprotected anal sex. Anonymity on internet hook-up sites can potentiate this belief by allowing men to present themselves and their desires with less constraint than in one-on-one situations.

Halkitis, PN. "Intentional unsafe sex (barebacking) among hiv-positive gay men who seek sexual partners on the internet." AIDS Care. June 2003;15(3):367-78.